The witch-hunt that blazed a trail across Europe (and indeed the world) over the 15th to 18th centuries stripped women of much of the power they had historically held. Not 100% of all accused Witches were female but 75% to 90% of accused witches in Europe were in fact women (Levack, 1987, p. 124). Prior to the 15th century, rural European women were highly revered and respected pillars of rural community life. Women were not only considered as mothers and wives, but also as community leaders, physicians, and sources of strength and wisdom.
They worked side by side with men toward the common goal of community growth and improvement. Though they were not seen as identical to men in the roles they played, they were considered men’s equals. The roles of women were different but equally important and respected as those of men. Women had a special and imperative role in rural life. In this era, women who grew old or were unmarried were not considered marginal members of society who had outlived, or thrown away there childbearing years. Many of these old unmarried women were well respected as the village healers and wise women.
The word “hag” comes from these wise and ancient women. The word “hag” in our language today implies a derogatory term directed toward older women. The original meaning of the word was “women with sacred knowledge”. These old women would possess the wisdom of the ages and pass it on to others (Armstrong & Pettigrew, 1990) One may almost say that these women lived in a naturally occurring social feminist utopia. These women were not strictly speaking feminists, because there was no bias for or against men or women within the rural community and with out repression or bias there can be no feminist movement.
On the other hand one can say that these women were natural social feminists without knowing it. Small rural communities were run in a semi-socialist manner. Inhabitants all had their homes or land, and some were wealthier than others but because of the community spirit within these small enclaves the children of your neighbor may as well be your children, and one would never consider withholding food or aid from a poorer neighbor. Women in these communities could choose their path and remain single and independent or marry and have children.
A woman was also virtually unlimited in the number of children she could have. More children meant more hands to contribute to chores and farm work, which in turn meant there was more food for the family to eat. Extended family was also a large part of this lifestyle and as such there were always grandparents, and perhaps even great grandparents who would help to raise the communities children and allow the mothers to contribute more fully to community life. There were several events that led up to the century known as “the Burning Times”. By the middle of the16th century, the which-hunt was in full swing.
In brief, the historical timeline of the witch-hunt and those events leading to the witch-hunt are as follows: Prior to the 11th century the Catholic Church did not even acknowledge the existence of Witches. To accuse or take action against one suspected of being a “dark witch”, Vampire or other supernatural being was punishable by cannon law. It was only towards the beginning of the 11th century that the church began to look upon the practice of “healing arts” as a possible form of witchcraft and began to dole out minor punishment for the practice of unlicensed healing.
In 1227 Pope Gregory IX established the Inquisitional Courts to arrest, try, convict and execute heretics. This mandate did not include “Witches” per se. In 1252 Pope Innocent III authorized the use of torture during inquisitional trials (Trevor-Roper, 1969, p. 43). This greatly increased the conviction rate. In 1258 Pope Alexander IV instructed the Inquisition to confine their investigations to cases of heresy. They were to not investigate charges of divination or sorcery unless heretics were also involved. Needless to say, inquisitors soon found ways to introduce charges of heresy into sorcery trials (Russell, 1980, p. 1). In 1265 Pope Clement IV reaffirmed the use of torture. In 1326 The Church authorized the Inquisition to investigate Witchcraft. Its main effort was to develop “demonology” theory.
By this point in history, the popular concept of Witches as evil sorcerers had expanded to include belief that they swore allegiance to Satan, had sexual relations with the Devil, and kidnapped and ate children. During the black plague of the 14th century the European population searched for a reason for the plague. They began forming theories about Lepers, Jews, Muslims and Witches poisoning wells and spreading disease.
The end of the 15th century brought with it the first of the major witch-hunts throughout Europe. It has been speculated that this religiously inspired genocide was motivated from a desire by the Church to attain a complete religious monopoly, and create scapegoats for spoiled crops, dead livestock or the death of babies and children. The people needed someone to blame and blaming a Witch was better than blaming God. At least one can fight back if a witch is to blame (Russell, 1980, p. 109) The advent of the movable type printing press ushered in an even darker era for the potential victims of the Burning Times.
Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention made mass printing possible, thus the distribution of mass anti-witch propaganda. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued an official Papal bill condemning Witches Shortly thereafter Thomas of Brabant wrote Formicarius, a predecessor to the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches’ Hammer), describing the prosecution of a man for Witchcraft. In1486 Heinrich Kraemer and Jacob Sprenger published the Malleus Maleficarum describing the activities of Witches, and methods of extracting confessions.
It was abandoned by the Church, but became the “bible” of secular courts holding witch trials (Trevor-Roper, 1969, p. 24) The large-scale European extermination of individuals charged with Witchcraft or other heresies reached its apogee between 1550 and 1650 these years are what have popularly become known as “the Burning Times”. Most victims of the Burning Times seem to have been: midwives, native healers, single women who lived alone, and/or who owned property, people against whom neighbors had a grudge or practitioners of ancient pagan rituals. Other victims often accused individuals, usually while under torture.
Others accused may have also simply been people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Women bore the brunt of these accusations because they were though to be morally weaker than men and driven by carnal lust. Weak morals and lusty appetites made them more susceptible to being bent by the Devils will (Levack, 1987, p. 126). During the Burning Times, many books were written both arguing for and against the widespread witch trials. Many of those who spoke out against the trials were accused and condemned a Witches or witch sympathizers themselves. Many wrote anonymously in order to evade suspicion.
In 1684 The last accused Witch was executed in England, although executions throughout mainland Europe, North America, and South America continued until the mid 1800’s. The witch-hunt over North America and Europe not only saw the death of millions of women but also served to set new standards for how women were treated in society. Women became marginalized members of society. A woman’s place was in the home of her lord and master, be that her husband or father. A woman’s function and role in life was to be the vessel for her husband’s sons and the “keeper of his castle”.
She was bound to love, honor, and obey her husband in all things until the day she died. If a woman chose not to conform to the roles of wife, mother, or daughter she was considered a harlot and branded as evil. According to the church, women bore the blame of original sin, and therefor had to be “kept in line” by their male keepers. Both by law and by custom women were not people, they were property and as property they could hold nothing of their own. This behavior was justified but the newfound facts of woman’s inherent inferior ability to be rational and her delicate nature.
Most women conformed to their assigned roles and became what their husbands and fathers expected them to be. Not all women of the post-burn era were content to resign themselves to the position that their husbands and fathers assigned to them. In this era women began to occupy new places in society and gather their power bases in the domains that were still open to them. One of the areas of society that was placed under a woman’s control was child rearing. Women continued to be responsible for the formative years of a son or daughters life. This fact gave women access to the next generation of leaders and mothers.
If a mother could establish a fundamental respect for women in her sons mind during his formative years, it is less likely that the male dominated society that he is exposed to in later life will be able to completely undermine the lessons and values taught earlier in life. A doting son placed in a position of power would give the mother power by proxy and in the days of absolute rulers who ruled absolutely anyone who had the lords ear wielded a great amount of power. Some women, so intent on holding power, were able become the leader of their lands.
Unfortunately it did not behoove most of these Queens and Ladies to use their positions of power to help improve the lot of other women of their time. Despite this one cannot say that the power-wielding noblewomen did not have an impact on the female population. Women in official seats of power made it more acceptable for women to participate in the realms of men and provided other women with strong female role models. Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there were several women who did proactively help to improve the lot of there fellow women.
One such woman was Elizabeth Blackwell. She graduated from Genevas medical school in 1849 and later returned to her native North America were she became the first North American female doctor. She went on to become one of the founding members of the London School of Medicine. In this way Elizabeth Blackwell helped return women the domain of the healing arts. Alice Paul is another example of an early feminist. She was the founder of the National Womens Party, played a leading role in the Suffrage movement and helped to draft the U. S. Equal Rights Amendment.
She helped return women to the domain of community leadership and political activism. It is from these examples that one can say that liberal feminism was born. These women “wanted in” they played the game in a mans world and played by the mens rules. They did not ask for any special treatment. They simply decided that they did have a choice in life and that they would choose a path of strength, reason, and independence. These women managed to break out of the private sphere that was long regarded to be the place for women, into the public sphere which had always (and to an extent still is) regarded as the domain of men.
It has taken almost 3 centuries to repair the damage done to women’s reputations and we still cannot claim success. The repercussions can still be felt to this day. Although the status of women in our modern society is improving everyday women are still not considered men’s equals in the workplace or in the home. The average women’s salary as of 1993 is still 72% of that of a man’s (MacIvor; 1996; p112). Many women with family responsibilities work anywhere from 4 to 8. 5 hours of unpaid work per day (MacIvor; 1996; p107). If these women also work, this means they have little time for anything else.
Because of the juggling act of home and family life, many women occupy part time jobs. In fact over 70 percent of the part-time labor force consists of women (MacIvor; 1996; p108). What this all means is that even in our “enlightened” modern era a woman has to work twice as hard as a man to achieve the same ends and heaven forbid that she be married or have children. The inclusion of children into that equation makes it near to impossible to be considered a man’s equal. Men and women are different and they always will be, but it does not mean that women are not equally as important to a working society.
It is only now that this realization of differences is being taken into account. Society is beginning to see that there are certain factors in a woman’s life that would prevent her from being a man’s mirror image. The top item on that list of factors is family and children. The new laws surrounding maternity and parental leave provide evidence that society is truly beginning to recognize both the equalities and the differences between men and women and is forming law and social policy to reflect that.